There’s a line in Edward Abbey’s 1988 novel, The Fool’s Progress, when Henry Lightcap, the novel’s cranky protagonist attempts to sum up the confusing condition of the modern American male in one succinct, if harsh, sentence: “They’re the new breed…Not exactly men, not exactly women, but something in between they call guys.” Twenty years later, Benjamin Percy plays with this question is his novel The Wilding, by placing a suburban, professional dad back in the wilderness he explored as a kid, just before it’s logged for development. The novel centers around a weekend camping trip Justin Caves takes with his father and young son, Graham, to a place called Echo Canyon. “Guy time,” Justin calls it when talking about the trip to his son, many pages before the trip goes horribly wrong. When Graham asks Justin to define the term he says, “You know what I mean. Hunting. Fishing. Camping. Hanging…Stepping outside your comfort zone and challenging yourself. Becoming a man.”
Justin is a 42 year-old high school English teacher living in Bend, Oregon—a place caught up in the wave of “progress” that reveals itself through new retail and housing developments at the expense of the wilderness just outside of town. His marriage is floundering. His wife refers to him as an idiot; his father calls him a “puss”. His only hope at finding any respect when we meet him is in his bookish, slight, twelve year-old son, Graham, whose allegiances start to turn the minute his grandfather hands him his first hunting rifle.
The trip is a last chance to visit their favorite camping grounds before the place is cleared for a new housing development. The heart-breaking irony is that Justin’s father’s has agreed to serve as the builder of the log homes that will go up in this new development, if only to hold on to the business he will surely lose if the contract goes to someone else. This is the new wilderness, too, Percy seems to be saying, that frightening place where you abandon your most cherished principles for financial security.
Percy scatters his story with markers that remind us of this shifting landscape of American manhood: Bonanza’s on the TV at a gas station; Justin whistles that banjo line from Deliverance. Justin is the kind of guy — and he is in some ways one of Lightcap’s “guys” — who grew up feeling ambivalent about the stereotypical expectations of men. He longs for the comforts of home while also reveling in the harsh beauty of the canyon and the river. He marvels at how comfortable his son is with a rifle while remembering how awkward he was with it at his age. When he and his father find a corpse at their old camping ground Justin literally runs while his father shrugs it off.
There are a couple of subplots that didn’t quite hit their marks: Justin’s disillusioned wife never quite acts out the way she seems to want to. There’s a side story about a man named Brian, a wounded Iraq vet who dresses up in a homemade bear suit constructed form the skins of animals he trapped himself runs the risk of being so odd it overshadows the very real panic and alienation he feels.
Where Percy’s most successful is in describing the landscape right down to the berry skins in the scat. It’s all beautiful and frightening and humbling. We’re on those trails, too, sharing that sense of awe as three generations of Caves stand at the bank of a river, or the uneasiness they feel as they take notice of the vicious claw marks on a tree left by the grizzly bear that’s lurking in the woods. When Justin and his father return to the place years later, at the development’s opening, he remembers a tree that used to stand in the place that is now a golf course. The wilderness has been tamed and reappointed for posterity and optimum financial return. It’s a tragedy and yet, after the picturesque terror Percy’s delivered to us prior to that moment, it’s also a relief.